ANALYSIS: Obama plays biography above brains with Sotomayor pick

Tuesday, May 26, 2009 | 5:14 p.m. CDT

WASHINGTON — Sonia Sotomayor may or may not be confirmed as the next Supreme Court justice, but she's definitely in the ballpark.

"Born in the South Bronx, she was raised in a housing project not far from Yankee Stadium, making her a lifelong Yankees fan," President Barack Obama said this morning in announcing his nominee to the high court. "I hope this will not disqualify her in the eyes of the New Englanders in the Senate."

Over Obama's left shoulder, the nominee grinned. Over his right shoulder, Vice President Joe Biden shrugged, as if uncertain whether Boston Red Sox fans might revolt.

But this was only part of Obama's, er, pitch.

"During her tenure on the district court, she presided over roughly 450 cases," he said. "One case in particular involved a matter of enormous concern to many Americans, including me: the baseball strike of 1994 and '95."

The invited guests laughed. "In a decision that reportedly took her just 15 minutes to announce — a swiftness much appreciated by baseball fans everywhere — " (more laughter from the audience) "she issued an injunction that helped end the strike. Some say that Judge Sotomayor saved baseball."

As a Supreme Court nomination speech, this was a bit of a curveball.

Some thought he would fire a fastball right over the plate, by nominating Judge Diane Wood or Solicitor General Elena Kagan — big brains who could serve as a counterweight to the court's conservative philosophers. Others were expecting a change-up: a well-known politician such as Michigan Gov. Jennifer Granholm or Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano. In selecting Sotomayor, Obama put an entirely different spin on the ball: He chose biography over brain. As a legal mind, Sotomayor is generally seen as smart and competent, but no Louis Brandeis. Neither is she likely to be the next Earl Warren; she's said to be abrasive and a bit of a bully. But her bio is quite a hit. In Spanish, her surname means, literally, "big thicket" — and that's just where Republicans could find themselves if they oppose this up-from-poverty Latina.

Obama gave the play-by-play from the East Room on Tuesday morning.

First base: "Sonia's parents came to New York from Puerto Rico during Second World War," he said. "Her mother is part of the Women's Army Corps. And, in fact, her mother's here today, and I'd like us all to acknowledge Sonia's mom." Nominee, president and audience applauded the small woman in the first row. "Sonia's mom has been a little choked up," the president noted.

Second base: "Sonia's father was a factory worker with a third-grade education who didn't speak English," the president went on. "When Sonia was 9, her father passed away and her mother worked six days a week as a nurse to provide for Sonia. ... Sonia's mom bought the only set of encyclopedias in the neighborhood."

Third base: "Sonia earned scholarships to Princeton, where she graduated at the top of her class, and Yale Law School, where she was an editor of the Yale Law Journal."

And, finally, scoring: "It's my understanding that Judge Sotomayor's interest in the law was sparked as a young girl by reading the Nancy Drew series, and that when she was diagnosed with diabetes at the age of 8, she was informed that people with diabetes can't grow up to be police officers or private investigators like Nancy Drew," Obama went on. "Well, Sonia, what you've shown in your life is that it doesn't matter where you come from, what you look like or what challenges life throws your way, no dream is beyond reach in the United States of America."

Obama was so excited about the announcement that he skipped right past the Framers of the Constitution to the ancient Romans. "The members of our highest court are granted life tenure, often serving long after the presidents who appointed them, and they are charged with the vital task of applying principles put to paper more than 20 centuries ago to some of the most difficult questions of our time," he announced. (Technically, that would have been papyrus back then, unless Obama misread his teleprompter and meant to say "more than two centuries ago.")

The fans were rowdy in the East Room for the announcement. One top aide to the vice president, circulating among the guests before the announcement, tripped over the podium and crashed noisily to the ground in front of the television cameras, but was uninjured. After Obama's introduction, the invited guests — among them Al Sharpton, labor boss John Sweeney, Kagan, Attorney General Eric Holder, liberal activist Nan Aron and a woman wearing a shawl that said "National Congress of American Indians" — stood to applaud the nominee. For many of them, who not too long ago were in the field defending against Bush's nominees, it was time to get in their licks. They greeted president and nominee with ballpark-style cheers, thumbs up and chants of "woo-hoo," and they took photos with pocket cameras and iPhones. "Well, I'm excited, too," Obama told them.

Off to the side, White House staffers Rahm Emanuel, David Axelrod, Ron Klain and Stephanie Cutter watched like proud parents. Their grins were particularly wide when Obama announced that "it's a measure of her qualities and her qualifications that Judge Sotomayor was nominated to the U.S. District Court by a Republican president, George H.W. Bush." (Actually, it was part of a deal in which Democrats also confirmed a conservative nominee.) Just before Sotomayor spoke, Biden whispered something into her ear. "I was just counseled not to be nervous," she told the crowd. "That's almost impossible."

But the nominee moved quickly to comfortable ground: her extraordinary biography. "I was raised in a Bronx public housing project but studied at two of the nation's finest universities," she said, though the president had just said virtually the same thing about the housing project and the "leading universities" that educated her. "Eleven years ago, during my confirmation process for appointment to the 2nd Circuit, I was given a private tour of the White House," she said. "It was an overwhelming experience for a kid from the South Bronx."

Hey, isn't that where the Yankees play?


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